Yoga therapy for grief in homicide survivors: Part 2—Finding ease in the storm through movement and community
By Nazaahah Amin
This is the second in a two-part 2 series. Part 1 touches on the healing benefits of breath and awareness.
“I’m still just so mad about my brother’s murder!” she yelled, tears streaming down her face. The other participants’ eyes started to water, heads nodding in unison—they could all relate. In that small-group yoga therapy session, more than half of the participants had lost a close loved one to homicide.
Yearly murders in Baltimore City, where I practice yoga therapy, reached a peak in 2019, with over 348 deaths. (As of this writing in July 2020, 184 murders have occurred in the city this year.) Not unlike other areas of the world, Baltimore clearly experiences shared grief, which is why I conduct my yoga therapy workshops in communities most affected by violence. Systemic health disparities are rampant in Baltimore City, and many residents do not have consistent access to high-quality health insurance.* To add to the burden, mental health challenges remain stigmatized in many communities. All of these factors limit the availability of mental health professionals and support services for those who commit violent acts—and those left behind.
During that particular session when the participant let her frustrations out, I asked her whether she could bring those feelings back to the body and notice where the anger showed up physically. When she winced and said, “It’s all in my shoulders,” I invited her to drop them with a deep exhalation. Her face instantly softened, her jaw relaxed, and her breath deepened. The other women tried it as well. Then we started to move. From our chairs, we did a series of therapeutic poses that helped the participants shift toward parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) dominance.
Following is a series I use to activate the rest-and-digest processes of the PNS, welcome in joyful feelings, and help to release frustrations associated with loss.
As discussed in Part 1, when dealing with grief the breath can be contracted. This contraction also often occurs in other parts of the body, including muscles and joints. Yoga poses and joint-freeing movements can be used to relax the tension. The physical movements, coupled with the yogic element of nonjudgmental awareness, can help bring in an experience of whole-person healing.
Brief how-to: Begin with a body scan (see Part 1) to recognize any existing tension. Then, link your breath with simple movements:
- Inhale and gently lift the chin, collarbones, and chest, drawing the shoulder blades toward one another across the back. Exhale and lower the chin toward the chest while rounding the shoulders forward.
- Inhale and lift the right hand high while spreading the fingers wide. Exhale and reach the arm overhead in a side stretch. Inhale to raise the right arm back up; exhale to lower the hand. Repeat on the other side.
- Inhale both arms up. Exhale and send the arms behind you (palms of the hands toward each other) while sticking out the tongue (a version of the yogic practice called lion’s breath).
These movements bring a feeling of space to the ribs and spine. In my experience, this can decrease overall tension and create the possibility of welcoming in blissful thoughts.
Another helpful aspect of the group yoga therapy sessions is the “sister circle,” in which participants answer a series of questions individually and then share with the larger group if they choose. Most of the questions are ones they’ve never previously taken time to explore, and they’re based on the niyama (yogic observance) of svadhyaya (self-inquiry).
Sharing usually starts with only one or two people verbalizing what they wrote. Eventually, the collective head nods and “mmhmms” usually lead to everyone sharing. The safe space of the yoga therapy room is often the only place these survivors can be completely honest and finally vocalize their anger, frustrations, fears, and concerns. The commonalities in their responses are an instant connector, as is the knowledge that they are not on their journeys alone. My yoga therapy sessions often end with tight hugs, tissues passed around, and phone numbers shared.
Questions to contemplate: How does your loved one’s passing make you feel in your body? How have you cared for yourself after their passing? How can your loved ones support you as you grieve?
After that session in which we shared, cried, moved, and breathed, the participant slowly walked up to me with relaxed shoulders and a bright smile and said, “Thank you! You don’t know how much I needed that.”
Nazaahah Amin, MS, C-IAYT, E-RYT 200, owner of Ama Wellness, provides yoga therapy sessions in individual and group settings. Ms. Amin facilitates therapeutic yoga workshops for African-American women in Baltimore City Public Schools and in private practice in West Baltimore.
*In Baltimore City, neighborhoods were redlined in the 20th century. The resulting racial divisions lead to food deserts, an abundance of liquor stores and unhealthy food carryouts, lower earnings, homelessness, and abandoned or dilapidated homes in African-American neighborhoods. These factors reduce quality of life and contribute to mental and socioemotional health issues that can culminate in violence.